Geof Cox's Blog

What would a social enterprise economy look like?

CafedirectSocial enterprise – using business models and methods, but for the common good, rather than private gain -  has now proven to be a viable way of organising human affairs.  We can do business better than businesses: for years Cafédirect, for example, has taken market share from multinational corporations, and social investment funds often beat conventional funds even by their own criteria of financial returns; but at the same time we also often achieve greater social impact than conventional charity or philanthropy.

So why aren’t politicians clamouring to use social enterprise as a template for a new economy? – especially in the light of the shortcomings of planned economy models exposed by the soviet collapse in the nineties, and those of contemporary capitalism exposed by the world financial crisis from the noughties to date?

Social Enterprise Law in South Eastern Europe


I've recently been advising the government of a small country in South Eastern Europe on their social enterprise legislation.

Disappointingly, their first Draft Law drew heavily on the Italian 'Types A & B' Social Co-operatives model.  This made me realise just how far social enterprise had come in the last 20 years (Italy itself introduced registration of social enterprises using a much broader definition in 2005).  I thought part of my assessment of where we are now might be of interest to readers in other countries...

A few years ago, 'social enterprise' was seen as a small business 'sector', rather like 'retail' or 'textiles', or as a type of organisation. This is now seen as a misunderstanding: what we call 'social enterprise' is in fact a broad social movement - a whole new way of organising human affairs, linked with 'social innovation' and 'social investment', and influencing how many existing organisations see themselves.

The recent growth in social enterprise has been in response particularly to environmental crisis and the disruptive impact of the internet, and also to loss of faith in both 'state capitalism' or planned economy models (following the 'soviet' collapse of the 1990s), and market economy models (following the world financial crisis - ongoing from 2008).

Geof Cox's Xmas Image 2015

I don't feel I had any real choice about my Xmas image this year - the tragic events in Paris in January, then again last month, defined 2015 here in France.  This year, it had to be Charlie Hebdo...
It's a choice not without some difficulties.  Should such tragedies shadow our celebrations?  But for me, the Xmas and New Year period is not only a time for relaxation and enjoyment, but also reflection on the past year and resolution for the new.

Where does social enterprise fit in postcapitalism?

Thoughts on reading Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, Allen Lane, 2015.

One of the biggest divisions in the social enterprise world – although it's rarely spoken of – is that between those who see social enterprise as mitigating the worst 'market failures' of capitalism, and those who see it as a bridgehead to a better world.  It is this division that drives, for example, the 'definitions' debate – and it's the reason why that debate tends to surface at every conference, despite the participants' avowed boredom with it: official definitions, marks, etc, only make sense if you see social enterprise as a narrow and distinct 'sector' – in which case they make a lot of sense - but if you see social enterprise as part of a broad movement towards the way ALL business should be done, any narrow definition is worse than useless.

Can social enterprise save public services?

The forthcoming conference on this theme led me to post the question 'Can social enterprise save public services?' on social media, which elicited one immediate response of 'NO!'NESEP Brochure

This reminded me of a public service transformation I worked on exactly 20 years ago this summer.

In January 1995, Newcastle Council made a £240,000 cut (84%) in its instrumental music teaching service.  The Musician's Union sent me in to help the teachers facing redundancy to save the service.  We quite explicitly wanted to blend a public service ethos with the dynamism and flexibility of a business.  Together, we set up the North East Music Co-op (NEMCO) - which in its first year grew from the initial 18 teachers to 33, and approximately doubled the number of pupils taught.

Greece, France - making enterprise more social...

I was particularly struck by a thought in Paul Mason's latest report from Greece – that the deal with its 'creditors'

forces Greece to repeal bans on Sunday trading, repeal laws that ensure you can get fresh bread on every street corner, and open up the system of family pharmacies, whose owners give informal credit and advice, to takeover by global corporations

What struck me particularly was that these words could be applied almost as accurately to France, where I have lived for the last 3 years.  Nearly everything here closes on Sundays – and, this being France, for 2 hours every lunchtime too; every village has its artisan boulangerie, and its pharmacie.

French pharmacists are in fact an integral part of the national health system and lifestyle – not only do they always take the time to advise you on health problems, you can also do things like collect wild mushrooms and take them to the local pharmacist, who will tell you which to eat and which to throw away.

Responsible business, not casino capitalism

As social entrepreneurs, what are we to make of the current UK politicians' spat about whether the various parties are pro- or anti- 'business'?

I've always been an entrepreneur.  While still at school I started a disco with 3 friends – we owned the equipment between us, equal shares – and on going away to university I set up a little business selling pocket calculators (then new and like gold dust).  I recognise in myself nearly all the qualities normally associated with entrepreneurs (good and bad!).  I am, in one party's jargon. 'a wealth creator'.  But in my 20s I discovered social enterprise.  The idea that you can use business models and methods to make everyone's lives richer is to me much more powerful than making yourself rich in merely material things.  And I'm not a-typical.  Let's be clear:

Small is the new big!

I've written before about some of the problems with the idea, uncritically accepted in some parts of the UK social enterprise movement, of social enterprise 'scaling up'.  My gut feeling is that although conventional business forms of growth might be appropriate in some circumstances, by and large we need to look precisely in the other direction: how to keep social enterprise small and locally, or community-based (while at the same time taking advantage of some economies of scale - for example through online 'collaborative communities').

It is refreshing to see conventional business moving decisively towards micro-enterprise too.  "The major business trend of the last few years is the regeneration of the cottage industry economic model."  (Simon Wicks, Enterprise Nation)

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